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SBY still an enigma - Indonesia in review

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 28 May 2007

When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono trounced Megawati Soekarnoputri to become Indonesian President in 2004, many foreign affairs experts in Canberra believed Australia’s giant neighbour was at last making a clean break with its past.

Here was a new man, a fluent English speaker, committed to the war on terrorism and a frequent visitor to Australia, Indonesia’s first directly-elected president who had defeated the incumbent with 61 per cent of the vote. Indonesia’s previous five presidents had either been dictators or ineffective ciphers, beholden to political factions and the military. Surely things would now be different.

Two-and-a-half years into his presidency Yudhoyono, or SBY as he is known both inside and outside his country, has not lived up to expectations. In a mid-term analysis, one of Australia’s foremost Indonesia watchers, Ken Ward, said that he found it difficult to understand why the president had done so little to exploit the fact that he had been elected with such a large mandate.


Disillusionment began to set in with the announcement of the first post-Megawati Cabinet. Ward, a former senior analyst for Indonesia with the Office of National Assessments, said it had been little different from any of the Cabinets of the previous six years “a coalition-style rainbow combination of party politicians, technocrats and retired military officers”.

Speaking to a meeting of the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Ward said SBY had allowed his authority to be flouted over a “clearly expressed preference” that his ministers not hold positions in any of the country’s numerous and often tumultuous political parties. “His own vice president, Jusuf Kalla, ignored this by standing and winning the chairmanship of the Golkar Party.

“As a result, the political parties have become increasingly confident and feel much stronger than I believe they should,” he said.

The fact is many of SBY’s ministers have spent the last two-and-a-half years playing politics to the detriment of their portfolios. Alwi Shihab, appointed People’s Welfare Minister, busied himself with the establishment of a new political party; Regional Development Minister Saifullah Jusuf, spent months negotiating a move from the National Awakening Party (PKB) to the United Development Party (PPP); and yet another, Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Suryadharma Ali, was involved in a lengthy campaign that eventually saw him take the chairmanship of the PPP.

As a result the Government’s once overwhelming popularity has begun to decline - from a 67 per cent approval rating as late as December to 49 per cent in March, resulting in a Cabinet reshuffle this month  in which two ministers, State Secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra and Human Rights and Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin, whose names have been linked to corruption allegations, were sacked.

Even so, the furore this has caused and the jockeying for position among the various parties, does not bode well for a smooth second half of the SBY presidency.


On the international front, apart from some local efforts to curb the often illegal burning-off of forests, Indonesia has done little to stem the haze pollution which has become an annual trial for people in the region. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs says the ASEAN-brokered Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, signed by Indonesia five years ago, has still to be ratified by parliament.

The report card is not all negative. Ward gives the government good marks for its swift response to the Boxing Day, 2004 tsunami disaster; SBY’s decision to reduce fuel subsidies in 2005 and the ending of the Aceh conflict. More recently, The Singapore Institute points to the successful completion of an extradition agreement with Singapore as indicating a willingness to go after corrupt business executives who are alleged to have stashed millions of dollars in stolen state funds in neighbouring countries.

Despite this uneven performance, Ward believes the SBY-Kalla ticket will be returned at the next election, scheduled for 2009, one of the reasons being the poor quality of candidates they are likely to face. Indonesians seem incapable of dumping their political heavyweights even when they are clearly spent forces. Thus despite her resounding defeat in 2004 Megawati has been nominated again by her Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP) and is likely to provide the main opposition.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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